Promise of Blood (The Powder Mage Trilogy) by Brian McClellan. Orbit, 2014. 608pp. 9780316219044.
My friend Eric has been telling me about this series for years. Every time I heard “Powder Mage” all that came to mind was “take a powder” or “baby powder” and I didn’t pick it up. Huge mistake.
The series’ eponymous powder mages have an affinity with gunpowder: they can snort it for super strength, speed, and stamina, cause it to explode from a distance, and use its explosive power to hurl bullets with and without guns. All of which is good, because they’re hated by members of the royal cabals, the more traditional magic users who are valued and kept close by their rulers.
The book opens with a coup by a general who is also a powder mage, who leads soldiers against a corrupt king who is bankrupting his country and abusing its citizens. There are a lot of beheadings and violence. He has to fight off royalists and try to control the city. He hires an investigator to figure out the cabal members’ cryptic last words. And he sends his son (also a powder mage) to kill his son’s best friend (the only surviving member of the royal cabal) at a remote mountain outpost. Nothing goes as planned. A neighboring country is about to invade. A popular master chef claims to be a god. Oh, and some version of Armageddon is coming. At the center of most of it is my favorite character, a mute young woman who uses some kind of “primitive” uncivilized magic no one understands, and who clearly kicks ass. (Eric assures me she figures into the later books, so I can’t wait to read them.)
Brandon Sanderson apparently mentored/taught McClellan, and their books share a level of craft and just sheer entertainment value that I rarely find elsewhere. If you liked Sanderson’s Mistborn series I think you’ll love this book.
Rapunzel by Chloe Perkins, Illustrated by Archana Screenivasan. Little Simon, 2017. 9781481490726. 24pp.
Snow White by Chloe Perkins, Illustrated by Misa Saburi. Little Simon, 2016. 9781481471855. 24pp.
Cinderella by Chloe Perkins, Illustrated by Sandra Equihua. Little Simon, 2016. 9781481479158. 24pp.
The board books are all part of the Once Upon A World series, short retellings of classic fairy tales for very little kids set in different places around the globe: India (Rapunzel), Japan (Snow White), and Mexico (Cinderella). The tales themselves are short and simple — details aren’t changed at all to make the text refer to the cultures where the stories takes place. (The one exception I recall is that in Snow White the text mentions that the seven dwarves have teacups in their cabin.) It’s the art that sets the stories in other lands. The books make the unstated point — that these stories are universal — and they totally work.
Arthur and the Golden Rope (Brownstone’s Mythical Collection) by Joe Todd Stanton. Flying Eye Books, 2016. 9781911171034.
Nobrow / Flying Eye books make me happy. They have amazing color and seem to delight in the craft of sharing stories and information. Plus they always have an extra touch or two, like the gold foil on the cover of Arthur and the Golden Rope, which caught my attention immediately.
It opens with an old man welcoming us to the Brownstone family vault, a room full of valuable and powerful artifacts (masks, helmets, weapons, taxidermied animals) where the most treasured items are the books that tell the stories of the man’s ancestors’ adventures. This is the story of the first such adventure, that of the unlikely hero Arthur, a boy from a small Icelandic town who loved to explore the forest and befriended the strange creatures he met there. One day a huge wolf puts out the town’s great fire. To relight it, someone needs to travel across the sea to where the Vikings live, and convince the god with the magic hammer to relight the fire. Despite the townsfolk’s doubts, Arthur sets off to find the god of storms.
The colors are all amazing, from the forests to the Viking god described in a tale to the injured townsfolk’s clothes and the books in the library in the gods’ hall. Every panel and bit of text drew me on to the next, but many of the drawings made me linger, and I’ve found myself going back and rereading bits and pieces just to enjoy them again.
This book belongs in all grade school and middle school libraries.
Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017. 9780553535204. 304pp.
(Note from Gene: I’ve known Kelly since back when she was a children’s librarian back in the early 2000s, I meet her to write a few times a month, and I loved her first book.)
Gene: So your book, your fantastic book. Give me your pitch for it.
Kelly: It’s about a girl, Annis, whose father is murdered and instead of becoming a governess she’d much rather become a spy. Unfortunately the War Office doesn’t see eye to eye with her.
G: Don’t you have to pitch it as a Regency first though?
K: I don’t, actually. I typically don’t. When I’m talking to elementary school kids about what I’m writing next, I say this happened 200 years ago and then I give that pitch. This one kid was like It’s exactly like Maximum Ride! And I was like, um…
G: I haven’t read that. But what about the Alex Rider series. This is if Alex Rider wore a dress and he could sew.
K: Yes. That is exactly not what it is like.
K: It’s a Regency but it’s not a romance.
G: She doesn’t find for a while that her dad is murdered. She’s kind of cast out of her life because she and her aunt suddenly don’t have any money — all of her dad’s money goes missing. And she goes to the War Office in a very haughty moment, after she knows she has magical talent, and tries to convince them to hire her as a spy. She goes about it in completely the wrong way.
K: I think that is basically her approach to pretty much everything for most of the book, if not the entire book. She has her idea of how things should be done and nobody else ever agrees with her.
Continue reading “Spies Like Thus”
The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg. Little Brown, 2016. 9780316259170. 224pp.
Kiddo, daughter of a God named Birdman, created the Early Earth. For a time it was a paradise, a happy world full of perfect, ignorant people that she liked to watch. Birdman was revolted by their purposelessness and the fact that they knew nothing of him, so he took over, creating a world where people feared and worshipped him, and where they knew their place. But he also accidentally created love.
This is a tale of two lovers in that fearful world, two women who are secretly in love, Cherry and her maid Hero. It starts when Cherry’s husband Jerome and his repulsive friend Manfred make a bet: Jermome believes Cherry is faithful, and he agrees to leave her for 100 nights to give Manfred a chance to seduce her. (Manfred doesn’t seem to understand the difference between “seduce” and “rape.”) When Manfred soon climbs uninvited into Cherry’s bed, she begs him to let her hear a story from Hero first.
Thus starts a series of magical tales (and tales within tales) that Hero learned from the League of Secret Storytellers. In a world where women aren’t allowed to learn to read or write, they stitch stories into tapestries and pass them around. They captivate not only Manfred but the guards at Jerome’s house as well. They are tales of a woman who marries the wrong man and tells him her secret, that she and her sisters can read and write; of two sisters seduced by the same man, and possibly of a murder; of a young girl whose mother is the smallest and most beautiful of the three moons, and of a king looking into a mystery posed by his three daughters.
The art in this graphic novel is dark and the lines heavy, though there are brush strokes that seem loose and unplanned. This odd combo gives the story both mythical gravitas and a bit of whimsey.
These two graphic novels are short and kid friendly but would appeal to older comics fans looking for light, fun stories, too.
Night Air by Ben Sears. Koyama Press, 2016. 9781927668290.
A futuristic story about a boy in goggles and his friend, a robot. They’re on the run from poker players who don’t like losing (or the fact that the kid was cheating). On a train to Apple City to search the junk shops, a hooded stranger tells them about an old castle full of treasure on the outskirts of town. The key he gives them fits the giant padlock on the door. Inside they meet treasure hunters (now cursed) and the weird couple collecting them.
The book’s amazing colors would have attracted me even if the quote from John Martz on the back cover hadn’t already.
Elf Cat In Love by James Kochalka. Retrofit / Big Planet Comics, 2016. 9781940398501.
This story, on the other hand, is black and white, but it captures all the fun Kochalka can have telling a weird story even better than the full color books he’s been doing recently. In fact I haven’t felt like he was having this good a time since Peanut Butter & Jeremy, which is still my favorite book by him.
Elf Cat and (a magic, talking) Tennis Ball go in search of the fabled Ice Sword but find a frozen foot-long hotdog. Tennis Ball wants to know if Elf Cat is now going to go save a princess? (He’s not.) And also if he thinks she’s pretty. (Tennis Ball is a girl.) Then a gigantic princess shows up and eats them both. And that’s just in the first chapter.
The BPRD books John Arcudi co-wrote with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola are some of my favorite rereads. This graphic novel series that he co-created with James Harren also has amazing monsters, supernatural heroes, a sense of humor, and a lot of heart.
In an unnamed (I think) American city near both a swamp and a failed Paul Bunyan theme park, an old man leaves his favorite bar after a night of drinking. He’s attacked by a sword-wielding scarecrow that cuts his arm off. The scarecrow is inhabited by the spirit of “some kind of monster-killing god” from thousands of years ago (Rathraq) and recently set free. He wants vengeance because the old guy is the wizard who separated his spirit from his immortal body. He also wants that body back (it’s just risen from the swamp and looks like some kind of bog mummy) along with his heart, which powers it. But of course the monsters that he once protected mankind from, the Esu, the ones he used to cut up with his mighty sword, are still hanging about and they don’t want that. Their queen hides his heart and threatens to destroy his immortal body. Battles ensue.
On Rathraq’s side: Bobby the bartender, tough in a pinch but reluctant to kill; his friend Del, a potty mouth who wants to fight alongside Rathraq; and Apache, a dog Rathraq likes to talk to about his dead war hound, Slanjau. Against them: a “man” with a pet hydra that he loves, a fire demon, and a hoard of creatures. And somewhere in between: half human / half Esu hybrids that need a little love and a lot of pizza. (They look like octopi made out of melting scoops of creamsicle ice cream.)